“After Pittsburgh” A Sermon by Rabbi Renni S. Altman


“After Pittsburgh”

A Sermon by Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Vassar Temple

November 2, 2018   25 Cheshvan 5779

Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od; v’haikay lo lifached klal.

“the whole world is a narrow bridge; the main point is not to be afraid.”

These words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav echoed in my head all afternoon last Saturday.  We sang them at the vigil Tuesday night; we want to believe them and hold onto them.

But how can we not be afraid?

We have seen such attacks elsewhere, but never here.

We hear echoes of the Jews of Germany on the eve of the Holocaust – it cannot happen here.

We should be safe in the synagogue – it is a place of sanctuary, after all.

How could this happen in Squirrel Hill – a vibrant Jewish neighborhood, one that demonstrates unity and not division?

Mr. Rodger’s neighborhood!


How can we not be afraid?

Since Pittsburgh, there have been a number of anti-Semitic incidents:

At another Reform congregation, Union Temple in Brooklyn – someone entered the building and defaced the wall with anti- Semitic slurs;

Anti-Semitic graffiti was found on the Upper West Side.


Well, one way that we can be less afraid is by coming to the synagogue, as we do on this night.

Many of us would have been drawn to the synagogue this Shabbat, even if we aren’t regular attendees, even if we don’t practice Judaism much, even if we aren’t Jewish!   We need to be with community at times such as this.

In response to the shooting and as a demonstration of solidarity and strength, the American Jewish Committee initiated campaign for this Shabbat: “Show up for Shabbat.”

This solidarity is as much for us as it is for the larger world – a reminder, that we are never alone:

Kol Yisrael Aravin Zeh b’zehi (all Israel is responsible for one another).

And a statement to those who would attack us:

Am Yisrael Chai (the people Israel lives!)

We will not be defeated by this vicious act of a deranged man, filled with hatred who attacked Jews and Judaism:

In a House of Prayer on our sacred Shabbat

Because there, people were living out the values of Judaism, especially to welcome the stranger.

Our best response is to continue to come to the synagogue, to live proudly as Jews.


We can be less afraid because of the knowledge that so many stand with us.

Immediately after the attack, I started to receive emails from leaders of other faiths – people I haven’t even met yet, expressing their deep sorrow, their shock and their anger.  It was especially heartening to receive such notes from members of the Islamic community and those who participate in the Muslim-Jewish dialogue.  As we have supported them when they have been victims of such hateful attacks, so do they stand with us now.

We planned for 125 people at the vigil Tuesday night; the Poughkeepsie Journal estimated attendance to be 500.  It was “standing room only.”  That experience has been repeated at vigils and memorials throughout the country – and around the world.


I heard an interesting interview the other morning on a podcast.  They were interviewing people in Squirrel Hill and shared one particularly unusual story:

It involved a Frenchman who, seeing the rise of anti-Semitism there about ten years ago, came to the US, to NY, and lived there for some time with his wife and child.  Because of visa issues, they had to return to France.  After the 2015 terrorist attacks at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and then the kosher supermarket, this family no longer felt safe in France.  The man had a relative in Squirrel Hill, moved there and has been there since.

The interviewer asked him to reflect on his experience in France and now in Squirrel Hill—did he feel safe here?

Yes, he said. The big difference was the support of the larger community.  The world saw the big march in Paris; that was mostly for the journalists who were killed.  Here, he felt the support of the larger community who came out to support them and who spoke out against the anti-Semitism.


While this act was perpetrated against Jews, we know that it was not aimed only at us.  It was aimed at all Americans who value the basic principles of democracy upon which this great nation was founded, who respect the rights of all – people of different religious, ethnic, racial backgrounds — to live in peace and security.

In one horrible week:

  • 14 Pipe bombs were sent to democratic political leaders who have spoken out against President Trump – thank goodness they did not go off.
  • a man killed two African Americans in a supermarket in Kentucky, after unsuccessfully trying to enter a black church
  • 11 Jews were murdered in cold blood while praying in their synagogue on Shabbat morning.


It is not news to us that Anti-Semitism is here; it has ebbed and flowed over time, varied from community to community, but we have seen it rising in recent years.  According to the research of the Anti-Defamation League, “anti-Semitism is still the number one hate target in America…. To this day, [there are] more attacks, more assaults, against Jews than any other faith. And anti- Semitic incidents [which means harassment, vandalism and assaults] increased by 57% in 2017.  They are increasing most significantly in educational institutions:  For K-12 schools, this is a dramatic increase of 94% over the 235 incidents in 2016. Anti-Semitic incidents on college and university campuses also increased in 2017 to a total of 204, an 89% increase over the 108 incidents in 2016. [1]

Some of you are all too familiar with such incidents.

Just a month or so ago, someone (another lone actor), put up anti-Semitic posters on some of our local college campuses following the Kavanagh hearings implying some Jewish cabal was behind it.  They were immediately taken down, the person was arrested and the presidents of the colleges uniformly condemned the act.

The good news is that the FBI confirms that Bowers was acting alone; he was not part of some larger group planning other attacks.

I share this not to raise the fear level any higher than it already is, but Pittsburgh (and, really, all of these attacks) is a call for greater vigilance, even as we hold onto our principles and values of outreach and welcome.

I’m not an alarmist by my nature.   As I followed the unfolding events on Saturday, my immediate feelings – after overwhelming sadness – was anger.  Anger at the various factors that enabled this massacre to happen, anger at our seeming inability to do much about it, anger at the fear that these attacks are instilling not only in the Jewish community but in so much of our nation.


I’m angry

That we cannot pass gun control legislation that would limit a Robert Bowers from stockpiling weapons (legally) and maximizing his killing potential with an assault rifle.

After Newtown, we thought there would be some action;

A year after Las Vegas, and we are not yet at a national ban on bump stocks;

After Parkland, what has changed?


I’m angry

That social media, with all of its potential, is a breeding ground for loners such as Bowers and Sayoc to find a community of like-minded people spewing hatred and fanning the flames of their passions that can lead them to take action on their words.

“Social media companies have created, allowed and enabled extremists to move their message from the margins to the mainstream,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, “In the past, they couldn’t find audiences for their poison. Now, with a click or a post or a tweet, they can spread their ideas with a velocity we’ve never seen before.”[2]

Thankfully, GAB,the extremist website where Bowers posted, was shut down, though with great lament by white supremacists who are now seeking out other avenues for their postings – like weeds they keep popping up.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all announced plans to invest heavily in artificial intelligence and other technology aimed at finding and removing unwanted content from their sites, with Facebook and Youtube each hiring tens of thousands more people for security.  But they admit that it’s much easier to find sites with nudity and take them down than it is to find sites that encourage hate crimes.

As challenging as it is to find the balance between protecting freedom of speech and stopping hate speech in the world of flesh and blood interactions, how much the more so is it to try to contain it on the internet.  The genie is out of the bottle and it has a life of its own.  We have to call out to those responsible for these sites to use the brilliant minds that set this all up, to find a way to monitor and control what is posted – or they are also to be held responsible for enabling and inspiring killers.


I am angry because “words do matter”.  Yes, I’m quoting Joe Biden, but he did not originate this principle.  It is firmly part of Judaism.  After all, how did God create the world?  Vayomer Elohim y’hi or — and God said, Let there be light…”  We understand that words can create and words can also destroy. We learn in the book of Proverbs, “Death and Life are in the hand of the tongue.” (18:21)

Thus, we too, need to pay attention to the words that we speak and post, lest we contribute – even on a small scale – to the vilification of the other and the divisive, negative tone in our country.

Words do matter – and they matter most from those in leadership positions, most especially from the president of our country.

I found this perspective from Abe Foxman, immediate past director of the ADL, to be most insightful on this troubling matter.  NYTimes op-ed columnist, Brett Stephens, a self-proclaimed conservative, reflects on Foxman’s remarks from an interview that Foxman gave to the Times of Israel:

“Pittsburgh is not Trump,” Foxman says. “It’s also Trump.” Trump, he adds, is not an anti-Semite. But fanning one set of hatred against immigrants has a way of fanning others, as it did for Bowers when he attacked the synagogue because he was enraged by its support for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Turning to last year’s neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Foxman says of Trump, “He didn’t create them. He didn’t write their script. He didn’t give them the brown shirts. But he emboldened them. He gave them the chutzpah, that it’s O.K.

“And when he had an opportunity to put it down,” Foxman adds, “he didn’t.”[3]

228 years ago, the President of this nation, George Washington, calmed the fears of the Jewish community at the Hebrew congregation in Newport, RI, who were very tentative about their status in this new nation.  Would they enjoy the right of religious freedom under this new government?  Washington allayed their fears and guaranteed that right:

…happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it all occasions their effectual support.”[4]



When our president does not only not condemn the Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville and chanted “Jews will not replace us” but says there are good people on both sides – that does not allay our fears; rather it exacerbates them.

When our president uses such loaded terms as Nationalist and Globalists and claims their neutrality, when to the Jewish ear they ring of anti-Semitic tropes of a Jewish cabal running the world – that does not allay our fears; rather it exacerbates them.

Yes, there is rhetoric in all of politics, some we know is worse than others.  And there are demagogues out there spewing all kinds of hatred.  But they are not in the White House, they are not President of this country who needs to be a president for all of the people, protecting all of its citizens.  We have the right to demand more.


So what do we do – with our fear and our anger and our anxiety, our sadness?

First we mourn –

In this week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah, Abraham mourns Sarah and he cries for her.  It is the first mention of mourning in the Bible and of the emotions that go with it.  He cries, he mourns.

Vayakom Avraham m’al pinei meito, “then Abraham gets up from before his dead”

After he mourns, Vayakom —  Abraham gets up to take action:

first, he acquires a burial place for Sarah;

then he acts for the future, finding a wife for Isaac.


This week we mourn for the senseless deaths in Pittsburgh, 11 lives snuffed out in a moment because of hatred.   We weep for the families of those killed and the heartbreak of such a close-knit community.  We weep for innocence lost.

Almost immediately, Vayakom, we stood up.  We stood supported by hundreds in this community and thousands around the nation, to speak out against hatred and for love and decency and respect.

Vaykom – we stood up:  We opened our doors for religious school Sunday morning as normal.  And we come to synagogue to be together on this Shabbat, and we will continue to send our children to religious school, and we will gather Sunday night for our gala to celebrate Vassar Temple and stand proudly as Jews, and we will celebrate the wonderful efforts in this congregation that the shooter condemned – we will honor Andi Ciminello and her partners who worked on behalf of Syrian refugees who sought the safety of this country, and we will honor Ron Rosen for his efforts to protect our environment which is so endangered, and we will honor with them so many in this congregation who dedicate themselves to social action and repairing our very broken world.  And we will continue to do that sacred work because that is what it means to be Jewish.

Vayakom – As we get up and move forward…

We will take Mr. Rodgers’ advice into account:  we will look for the helpers.

We look to our partners.

The DCIC is a great organization of people of many faiths.  How can we continue to work together to combat ignorance and hatred?

We must take next steps together.

We have to begin with education to counter the hate –for children and adults alike.


We are grateful to the most important helpers in Pittsburgh a week ago – the first responders, four of whom were wounded.

We are grateful for our helpers, local law enforcement, and we have their reassurances that they will always do their best to protect us, along with all residents of Poughkeepsie.

They are working with us to help us ensure our security in our building.  How we can have an open door policy even if our door must locked much of the time?

The Tree of Life Synagogue followed security protocols, they had active shooter drills; authorities believe that it could have been much worse had they not done so.  The board will be meeting Sunday morning to review various security options; you will hear more in the future.

Tuesday is election day.   Right now, the most powerful tool in our hands to conquer hate is to act on our sacred rite as citizens and vote; to vote for candidates we believe will be most effective in combating this climate of hate.

While Jews can proudly claim a very strong voting record (studies show Jewish voter turnout averages around 85% in contrast to just 50% of the country overall), turnout is generally much lower in non-presidential years

According to estimates, only 50% of registered young voters actually voted in the 2016 presidential election.   Get your young people out to vote!

Make sure you vote and encourage others to as well.


Like Anne Frank who never gave up her ideals that people are really good at heart, I still believe that most people are.  I will never lose that faith or that optimism.

I take strength from the words of a young man, Josh Stepakoff now 25.   In 1999, when he was just six years old, Josh became a shooting victim in the attack at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.  In a radio interview last year, Josh reflected on that experience and his understanding of being targeted because he was a Jew.

“As I started to reflect on why I was shot,” he says, “I started to think of all of the good things that came from Judaism as opposed to this one terrible thing. I started to remember that it’s my view on life. It’s making sure that I treat everyone with compassion and that was more of what Judaism meant to me rather than a threat to who I was.” [5]

Kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od; v’haikay lo lifached klal.

The whole world is a narrow bridge; the main thing is not to be afraid.


May we draw strength from one another and from our faith, that we will fight hatred with love, bigotry with compassion and fear with faith.

[1] https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/2017-audit-of-anti-semitic-incidents


[2]On Instagram, 11,696 Examples of How Hate Thrives on Social Media; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/29/technology/hate-on-social-media.html


[3] Yes, the President Bears Blame for the Terror From the Right, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/01/opinion/trump-sayoc-bowers-attacks.html


[4] George Washington and his Letter to the Jews of Newport; http://www.tourosynagogue.org/history-learning/gw-letter


[5] NPR interview from 2017 replied on Morning Edition, Nov. 2, 2018